The Other 60 Percent

Report: DPS lacks PE, recess, breakfast

A group that has been tracking health trends among students of color Monday called on Denver Public Schools to step up its efforts to boost physical activity and improve access to nutritious food.

Antwan Wilson, DPS assistant superintendent, signs a pledge to work toward full implementation of the recommendations made in the Health Justice Report.

School officials say they couldn’t agree more with the conclusions reached in the “Health Justice Report” released by Padres & Jovenes Unidos. Six of them endorsed the report and promised to do what they can to work for its full implementation.

Specifically, the group wants more schools to offer breakfast in the classroom, more improvements to the quality of the food served, and recess before lunch.

“These are things we definitely will commit to,” said Antwan Wilson, assistant superintendent of post-secondary readiness for DPS. He noted that if the district seeks a tax increase in November, part of it will go toward expanding physical education at district elementary and middle schools.

“What you are demanding is so exciting,” said DPS school board member Anne Rowe, one of the six district leaders on a panel receiving the report. “It’s vital that parent groups keep pushing. Yes, progress has been made but there’s much more work to do. Keep pushing the board of education to do what’s right.”

Health initiative launched three years ago

Padres & Jovenes Unidos launched its health justice campaign three years ago with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Organizers sent “health promoters” into the homes of some 230 DPS families, most of them Spanish-speaking and low-income, to educate them about health disparities and to survey them about what changes they’d like to see at their schools, said Monica Acosta.

“We know obesity rates have risen dramatically over 20 years,” said Acosta, who heads the Health Justice initiative. “For communities of color, conditions are even worse. Two of three Latinos are either overweight or obese. That’s pretty significant.

“For Latino parents, this is a really serious issue. We’re not exaggerating when we say our people are dying. If we don’t do something drastic now, our kids will not outlive their parents.”

Cuts to physical education offerings cited

Alicia Leon, a single mother of four, told the panel that while DPS has made great strides, especially around the quality of food served, problems remain.

She said when she was in school, she had physical education every day: “Today, my kids have PE every three days.”

Leon noted that from 2001 to 2011, DPS decreased its physical education teaching staff by 42 percent. The average minutes of PE every week per student fell from 125 to 54.

She also noted that 81 percent of parents indicated they wished their elementary-age children could have recess before lunch.

“This was first recommended to DPS in 2005,” she said. “Seven years later, only a handful of schools have implemented it.”

Finally, only 27 out of 197 DPS schools offer breakfast in the classroom, she said.

Theresa Hafner, director of food and nutrition services for the school district, said parents’ observations were justified.

“You want the same things I want,” Hafner said.

She reported that improvements to the quality of food served in DPS will continue. By fall, every school will have at least one salad bar serving locally-grown produce. No canned fruits will be served for the first few months of school, during the local growing season.

In addition, she said, 50 DPS schools will be participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program, a federal program that provides free fruits and vegetable snacks to students at schools with a high percentage of low-income students.

Though the program has been around since 2008, this is by far the largest number of DPS schools ever to take advantage of it, Hafner said.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.